Polemical Poetry II: Of Memory and Memory Holes

The Misfortune Teller

The Misfortune Teller
Sculpture-Painting by Michael Murry © 2014

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:

“A mnemonic (the first “m” is silent), or mnemonic device, is any learning technique that aids information retention. Mnemonics aim to translate information into a form that the brain can retain better than its original form. In fact, ‘Memory Needs Every Method Of Nurturing Its Capacity’ is a mnemonic for how to spell mnemonic.”

In other words:

Melodious Mnemonics

by Michael Murry

Many words can make a mess
For meaning neither more nor less,
But some arrangements stick around
Because the brain remembers sound.

So if I had to make a choice
Between the letter and the voice
I’d choose to sing a nonsense song
Instead of meaning something wrong;

For in my little slice of life
I’ve witnessed mostly stupid strife
Perpetuated by the frauds
Who claim they speak for unseen gawds.

And I have learned to discount words
As mostly smelly little turds
Whose meaning no one seems to know
Except that from them corpses grow,

Attracting hordes of thirsty flies
Who drink their fill from crying eyes
While “meaning” pours from moving lips
And falsehood-scribbling finger tips.

So, yes, I’ve heard both long and short,
And read much, too, of either sort.
But still, when words have had their say
It takes a tune to make them stay.

Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright © 2010

Which reminds me of my freshman year in high school when Mr Kennedy, our physical science teacher came into the classroom one day and declared: “All memory is based on two principles: association and repetition. You are going to prove this to yourselves today by memorizing the entire Periodic Table of the Elements.” We did, too. Mr Kennedy would tell one student an absolutely awful pun on the name of a chemical element and the class would groan in collective embarrassment (emotional reinforcement). For example: “I coach track and field, and I feel so sorry when I see those poor boys running around with lead in their pants. Get it? PBlead” (association).  Then Mr. Kennedy would have the student repeat the chemical symbol and its name and then repeat all the elements and their names which other students had recited previously (additional repetition). Then he would go on to the next student: “I just overheard a boy making a date with his girlfriend. He said ‘I’ll see you at the Copper Penny restaurant tonight.’ Get it? C UCopper.” And so on. Around and around the room we went. Associating. Emoting. Repeating. Remembering. I don’t think I ever witnessed a better illustration of effective teaching in my entire life.

Poetry — at least metrical verse — possesses a mnemonic power and it matters very much what sounds and rhythms will best combine, not only to reinforce the intellectual and emotional meaning of the words, but also make that meaning “memorable.” Poetry may “just happen” to the inspired creative genius, but a plodding dullard like myself has to make it happen through continual research into the technical elements of poetry as well as emulation of good examples

But before we can communicate effectively, whether in prose or poetry, we have to think critically about what we wish to communicate. And before we can think critically – as George Orwell pointed out in his dystopian novel, 1984 – we must first possess an accurate memory of what actually happened in the past. Otherwise, we have no means of determining whether our present condition represents a life of improved, as opposed to deteriorating, possibilities. Unfortunately for us living in the present historical moment, the corporate totalitarian state does not want the individual citizen to develop his or her critical faculties nor to communicate their “subversive” ideas effectively to others. Hence the corporate totalitarian state attempts to destroy individual and collective memory, mostly by continuously rewriting the past so that it never provides a basis of comparison with the present. As Orwell wrote: “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.

Or in another manner of speaking, consider:

The Good Ship Memory Hole

One dark and stormy night this tepid tale
Began, and waking from a dream, it ended.
Unmoored, the uncrewed Fantasy set sail
On twilight seas where day and nighttime blended.
The empty sky complained to no avail
About the disbelief it had suspended.

The tide went out and with it went the boat
Adrift and rudderless, no one commanding.
The fog rolled in and swallowed in its throat
The strangled cry of something dim demanding
To know the reason why the fishes gloat
To see a thing beneath their understanding.

The wind, that vagrant quantity, died down,
And then arose to drive the ship before it.
No Ahab paced the deck to rage and frown.
No fickle fate consented to abhor it:
That nightmare stream in which the dreamers drown;
The mind awaiting waking to restore it.

The whales and dolphins swam along beside.
The albatrosses soared, the gulls they glided.
The barnacles hung on to bum a ride.
The turtles temporized, their time they bided,
Until the seals would cease them to deride;
Till someone, somewhere, sane, this scene decided.

The ocean rudely rolled, the eyes they crossed,
As stomachs down below grew sour and trembled.
The passengers turned pale; their lunch they lost;
And wondered why they ever had assembled
To voyage to the void at such a cost —
And who the ticket-selling fraud resembled.

No Ishmael survived the trip who knows
Why thought reflected off the waves and scattered,
Absorbed into the swirling ebbs and flows
That left the crazy craft careened and battered
Upon Amnesia reef where nothing grows
Except forgetfulness of things that mattered.

Michael Murry, “The Misfortune Teller,” Copyright 2009

7 thoughts on “Polemical Poetry II: Of Memory and Memory Holes

  1. At his website, Empire Burlesque, Chris Floyd wrote an essay recently entitled,
    Posterity Will Hate Us: Building a Lasting Legacy of Death. His thesis postulates that those living in the not-too-far-distant future will look back upon us unkindly for our passive enabling of death and destruction sown far and wide by our own government. I responded as follows:

    “As Syme said to Winston Smith in the Ministry of Truth: “You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year? … Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because their will be no words in which to express it. … Has it ever occurred to you, Winston, that by the year 2050, at the very latest, not a single human being will be alive who could understand such a conversation as we are having now?” So wrote George Orwell prophetically in his dystopian novel, 1984.”

    “It pains me to say it, but we can write all the intellectually accurate and emotionally moving words that we wish, but if we suppose that the next generation will understand what any of the words mean, we delude ourselves. Even in this generation, illiteracy and passive image consumption have made much of human literature as invisible and inaccessible as if no one had ever written it. “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.” Increasingly, we proles live in an eternal present that has no past, and so our descendants, even more so than us, will never know any standard of comparison with their own eternal present. This will happen — even as we see it happening today — by deliberate design of the Oligarchical Collective. So will our descendants despise us for our inhumanity and obsequious bootlicking towards “authority”? I doubt it. They will not even know that we existed. For them, nothing will exist but their own eternal NOW.”

    To which thoughts another person replied in turn:

    “This is an excellent comment. The concept of “privacy,” the meaning of “civilian” and “militant” and “war,” and the very important concept of what level of risk is acceptable in a so-called free society have all been warped and will continue to be so warped for future generations. Shrunk to a consumer-happy jingle of use to the 0.01% oligarchy.”

    The deliberate destruction of our language as a vehicle for critical thought continues to escalate. Indeed, even at present, far too many Americans cannot understand “such a conversation as we are having now.” What the late Gore Vidal called “The United States of Amnesia” has, in many respects, already come to pass, and so predicting the destruction of memory as a future development ignores the actual — and deplorable — situation confronting us today. Some have pointed out that Orwell came up with his title “1984” by simply reversing the last two digits of the year during which he wrote about the totalitarian fascist and communist tyrannies only too well understood by him from bitter personal experience. It makes sense, then, for us, as well, to cease projecting into the future that awful reality that increasing surrounds us today. We need to remember and devise strategies for seeing to it that our posterity does, too. “In a time of deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” So let the revolution of truth-telling commence.

    • A prescient movie here is the original Rollerball with James Caan. Note how his character, Jonathan E., becomes a radical precisely when he seeks to know the past. And how corporations act to hide that past, while keeping everyone distracted by consumption and destruction, bread and circuses.

      One of my favorite scenes in Rollerball is when James Caan visits the central computer system, and the operator laughingly notes that the entire history of the 13th century has been misplaced!

      Yes, he who controls the past controls the future. And he who controls the present controls the past. I would always seek to explain the meaning of this to my history students, many of whom see the past as “dead” or “dry” or “boring.” And indeed the past is often presented that way — as a dry, boring, recitation of certain “facts,” most of which are trivial or have little meaning disconnected from larger contexts.

      Maybe I’m biased, but Orwell’s saying to me supports the idea that no subject is more important to teach students than history. But what’s the big push today? Not history. It’s STEM — science, tech, engineering, and math. And computers. And practical skills, i.e. job-related.

      So we graduate a generation of students who know little about their own history, let alone those histories of other peoples in the world. And we wonder why we stagger around like blind men without even a cane to tap our way ahead.

      • As a matter of fact, “Everything Already Happened.”

        By the time our five senses have alerted our nervous system and brain to the presence of “it” — meaning “something” worth noticing — and by the time the various parts of our brain have combined to produce a “thought” about “it,” the universe that stimulated us to have such a thought has already changed and no longer exists. In other words, we live only in a continuously expanding past and cannot possibly know anything but what has already happened. What we mistakenly call the “present” means, in reality, just the most recent past that hasn’t yet had time to completely form in us.

        Nothing happens “instantaneously.” Everything takes a finite amount of time to occur. Even the speed of light has a finite value and when we look up at the sun and think we see it “now,” we actually see it as it existed eight minutes ago — i.e., in the past. And as for the far-distant suns that we choose to call “stars,” we see them only as they existed millions or even billions of years ago — the time it has taken their light to reach our eyes — plus an additional small delay while our nervous system and brain assemble and make sense of the sensory input coming from our eyes. In other words:

        From Ad Astra Ex Machina

        The nearby star in the daytime sky
        And the faraway suns at night
        Do not necessarily fool the eye
        But they certainly trick the sight

        Michael Murry, “The Misfrotune Teller,” Copyright 2004

        We live only in the past because, as far as we can ever know, “Everything Already Happened.”

        Run that by your “technically” inclined students, Professor.

  2. Two epigrams from Alfred Korzybski’s Science and Sanity, Chapter XII: On Order

    “The notion of continuity depends upon that of order, since continuity is merely a particular type of order.” — Bertrand Russell

    “Memory, in fact, is nothing but the reinforcement and facilitation of the passage of the nervous impulse along certain paths. … But before dealing with the brain, it is well to distinguish a second characteristic of nervous organization which renders it an organization of levels.” — Henri Pieron

    As Korzybski went on to note: “When we introduce explicitly the finite velocity of of nervous impulses (on the average, 120 meters per second in the human nerves), we are able to reach a perfectly clear understanding, in terms of order, of the spread of impulses. Some ‘infinite velocity’ does not involve order. Conversely, by considering the order of events, we introduce finite velocities. … ‘infinite velocity’ is meaningless and so all actual happenings can be ordered. The above is an important factor in our semantic reaction [meaning, the physiological response of the organism-as-a-whole to the nervous stimulation we call language]”.

    So, although events happen in our nervous systems relatively quickly, they do not happen “instantaneously” (a strictly meaningless concept] and so nothing that we call “now” or “the present” actually exists. Only after a sequence of ordered events has happened in us do we experience the sensation of “thought” about what has already occurred. We live on the leading fringe of a continuously expanding order of completed occurrences that we call the “past,” backing into the “future,” by which we mean the past that hasn’t happened yet. “Everything already happened” and for us, as far as we will ever know, will always have already happened. We can actually know nothing else.

  3. Memory. Let me add a comment to this erudite examination of remembrance of things past. In two weeks I will be ninety years old. My memory is fast slipping away. But the “memory” that is slipping away is names, dates, events,specifics. But what remains with me is the feelings and emotions “connected” to those specifics. So to try to reclaim the “memory ” of the specific name, time, or event I must ruminate first on the emotion connected to the name or event and hope that my neurons will connect to the specific. What it all comes down it is human emotion is that is the important thing in each life not the memory of specifics. That proves we are essentially animals. Animals react “instinctively” or one might call it “emotional memory”. One seldom forgets the smell, the fear, or the pleasures, of living.

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